When Gordon Ramsay installed Angela Hartnett as chef-patron at the Connaught, the appointment was heralded as a breakthrough for women chefs. To conquer the peaks of the showcase hotel restaurant requires a combination of skills few chefs possess. They need to be able to helm a huge brigade producing Michelin-class cooking – and that's just for starters. Then there's the ambassadorial duties as media figurehead, and the political smarts needed to manage the relationship with the hotel's owners, the hospitality equivalent of governing a city state within an enormous and turbulent empire.
The regime change which ousted the Ramsay group from the Connaught saw Hartnett succeeded by Hélène Darroze, who remained the only woman in charge of a prominent London hotel restaurant. Now Silvena Rowe has stepped up to the plate, with the opening of her new restaurant in the Mayfair Hotel. The Mayfair, near Piccadilly, is a survivor from the 1920s, but you wouldn't guess that from the blingy designer sheen of its interior. A multi-million pound makeover a few years ago has transformed it into a showbusiness hot-spot – flashy, fashion-y, and until now, not particularly foodie.
The Glamour awards after-party coincided with our visit, and paparazzi were clustered at the door, waiting for JLS. Daisy Lowe was arriving as we left. This showbiz setting is a good fit for Silvena Rowe, whose big personality and even bigger peroxide quiff have established her as a regular on TV food shows. A former executive chef of the Baltic group of restaurants, she has drawn on her Bulgarian/Turkish heritage to produce some lovely books, including her latest, Orient Express, which celebrates the cuisine of Turkey, Syria and Lebanon.
Quince, her new restaurant at the Mayfair, explores the same territory, drawing inspiration from the Ottoman banquet and contemporary Middle Eastern street food, with abundant use of spices, fruits and fresh flower petals. The result is a sultry and glamorous restaurant which feels different from the stuffy, business diner-dominated norm.
The dining room, dark and discreetly oriental in feel, with its red velvet banquettes and blue-and-green tiling, is arranged around an open kitchen. Silvena Rowe is a larger-than-life presence, visiting every table to explain her vision. "I'm of Ottoman origin myself," she announces disarmingly, as though challenging us to start a war with her.
This personal touch extends to the menu, which is glossed with such autobiographical notes as "My favourite meal!" and "A homage to my grandfather Mehmed". If ever a menu didn't need the hard-sell, it's this one. From mezze-style small plates to slow-cooked meat dishes from the stone oven, it's a fabulously inviting read.
Some, but not all, of the dishes we tried reflected the dazzle of the menu. Our meal started traditionally with a nice update of the Turkish staple borek – cigar-shaped filo tubes – the wafer-thin pastry filled with spinach and slow-cooked lamb shank, blousily spiced. Hummus came pimped up with sautéed king prawns; the lack of affinity between the two ingredients explained why no one has tried this surf'n'earth combo before.
A main-course salad which married burrata with pomegranate, tomatoes and chunks of bread was a winner, ditto a brace of spice-coated lamb cutlets, which disappeared in two bites. But I was mystified by my main course, temptingly billed as "grilled golden five spice halibut, with everything green, flowers and green harissa". Everything green, it transpired, was an assortment of shoots and micro-herbs, served naked. I'd already eaten four lunches, filming for a TV food show, and even I wanted more. The essence of Middle Eastern hospitality is surely abundance, and there was something grudging about the portion control here – a rice pilaf with blueberries, pistachios and lemon balm, was great but yielded only a spoonful for each of us.
We ended with Quince's signature dessert, a baklava- inspired pastry rolled around a dark, sticky orange reduction, and some fancy teas, served with agreeable ceremony. The unexpected steepness of our bill was traced, after panicked scrutiny, to a £15.75 ginger-and-vodka cocktail which I'd ordered, price unseen. But then you don't go to the Mayfair hotel without packing some Monopoly money.
Chatting to Silvena Rowe, she seemed determined to build the restaurant's reputation on food alone, rather than through association with the celebs who frequent the hotel. But for us, the food wasn't quite the draw we hoped it would be. "It's basically tricked-out Turkish-ish," concluded my friend, who writes about Middle Eastern restaurants. As chef-proprietor of a would-be serious food destination in a happening hotel, Ms Rowe may have to relax and join the party if Quince is going to bear fruit.
Quince, The Mayfair Hotel Stratton Street London W1 (020-7915 3892)
Three courses à la carte £80 a head before wine and service
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Kitchen goddesses
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